The Singapore Decalogue

The Singapore Decalogue, by Zafar Anjum.
The Singapore Decalogue, by Zafar Anjum.

My review of Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue appeared on Kitaab a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a preview:

“Singapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective.”

Read the rest here

The Story of Noble Rot, Uzma Aslam Khan, New Delhi: Rupa, 2009 (2001)

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Having read Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing and Thinner than Skin, two of the author’s later novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her: beautiful, ornate yet precise language combined with a complicated yet ultimately somewhat flat plot. (I’m still holding out hope that her great novel will be her next book, she’s building up to something big.) However, The Story of Noble Rot is a very different book. It’s easy to say in retrospect that this is clearly a first novel, in which the Khan found her voice and set herself on the writing path. But the style of this first novel is so very different from her later writing that it is actually difficult to see the connections.

The Story of Noble Rot is comical, in a bleak way. As one reviewer from The Indian Review of Books put it, it’s “pleasantly quirky”. This is a world away from her other novels (the two that I’ve read), which are uniformly serious, earnest even, in the way that a lot of Pakistani writing in English seems to be (OK, not Mohammed Hanif). There are elements of the fantastical and the fable in this novel, making it vaguely reminiscent of some of Githa Hariharan’s earlier writing, or even Aravind Adiga.

The Story of Noble Rot is essentially a tale of class inequalities and the middle- and upper-classes’ sense of entitlement in contemporary Pakistani society. It is the type of tale that has been told frequently in Indian English literature, because it is an issue that is just getting worse in the region. A house-servant witnesses the corruption of her mistress and a complicated game of blackmail ensues, in which the grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous.

The title is intriguing, enigmatic and clever, as it sums up so much of what this book is about—or, rather, what it explores, because it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing. But, as a thread running through the novel is the enjoyment of wine, the title is actually connected with that: “The sweet taste of the wine comes from the muscadelle grape, and the grayish mould that it attracts. The fungus sucks water from the grape, leaving it with an unusually high quantity of sugar and glycerine. We have lovingly named the mould pourriture noble, noble rot.” (p. 121).

Delhi Calm, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, 2010

Delhi Calm, by Vishwajyoti Ghosh NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2010. Purchased in India.
Delhi Calm, by
Vishwajyoti Ghosh
NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2010. Purchased in India.

I have written before on this blog that I feel I don’t have the right vocabulary to discuss graphic literature properly. I still feel this way, but I’m trying to become more familiar with the genre, so the last time I was in India I picked up this graphic novel, Delhi Calm.

Delhi Calm is certainly a novel, unlike other works of graphic literature that I’ve read and reviewed, which are compilations or part of a series. It is set in Delhi during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the late 1970s, beginning just before the Emergency does, and ending at its abolition. The narrator is a young newspaper employee who finds himself out of a job when his office closes in fear, and becomes involved in underground, anti-government politics. The title comes from an international newspaper headline, the day after the Emergency was declared.

It is difficult to describe a plot as such, because so much of the ‘action’ is visual. The story itself is a fairly predictable exploration of living under the Emergency, but the visual depiction of masked characters are what give the novel depth. The masks hide peoples’ true selves, their real political identities, and what is left visible are generic faces, indistinguishable from each other.

I enjoyed Delhi Calm but I felt it was rather long, at 246 pages (and large pages at that). But then, perhaps the mode of reading a graphic novel is very different from reading text, and I wouldn’t consider a 246 page textual novel too long (unless it was very bad, of course). So I think I need to keep training myself to read this genre more effectively and appreciatively.

(I reviewed the same author’s edited collection, This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition in Kitaab several months ago.)

A page from Delhi Calm.
A page from Delhi Calm.

The Last Wave, Pankaj Sekhsaria, 2014

The Last Wave: An Island Novel, by Pankaj Sekhsaria. NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2014. Borrowed a free review copy from my office :)
The Last Wave: An Island Novel, by Pankaj Sekhsaria. NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2014. Borrowed a free review copy from my office 🙂

Pankaj Sekhsaria’s debut novel, The Last Wave: An Island Novel is fascinating for the way it depicts a part of India often ignored in literature: the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, just south of Burma but mostly administered by India. The only other literature I have encountered that is set in the Andamans is Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, and I’m not sure that this should be the place’s sole literary representation! (A ‘feminist’ Lord of the Flies).

Sekhsaria is an academic who works on the Andaman Islands—he has written two non-fiction books on them already—and also writes regular journalistic pieces on them. This depth of knowledge comes through very clearly in this novel, and a great deal can be learnt about the history of the islands, their settlement, the challenges facing the native peoples and the mainland Indian settlers from The Last Wave. But it is more than an anthropological tract, as Sekhsaria intertwines this depth of knowledge with a realistic and somewhat charming love story, running parallel to a plot about outsiders’ attempts to ‘save’ the indigenous Jawara people of the Andaman Islands.

Sekhsaria addresses the issue of how ‘mainstream’, mainland India (which generally means northern and/or metropolitan) perceives and treats the country’s minorities. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands—of which there are several, but the novel focuses on the Jawara people—are considered savages (‘junglees’) by mainland Indians, little more than wildlife. In fact, safari-style tourism still occurs on the Andaman Islands, something that Sekhsaria discusses: “The promotion was blatant and often outrageous” writes Sekhsaria. “’See and feel the primitive dark tribe of the Andaman forests’ went one catch line; ‘A once in a life time opportunity of meeting primitive naked people’, read another.” (p. 226). Of course, as with so many instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication between cultures, women are employed as symbols. Sekhsaria writes of a Bengali tourist to the islands encountering a Jawara woman:

“Here was a woman who was what a woman should not be: a woman not conscious of her body and her nakedness, who had no lajja, no shame. Haldar’s wife held up the Jawara woman’s right hand, picked up a bunch of bangles and slipped them effortlessly over the dark bare wrist.” (p. 65)

However, it must be said that Sekhsaria’s writing is strongest when he is discussing the historical, anthropological or sociological elements that comprise the novel. He does make his language engaging, interesting and befitting the fictional genre, but the other aspects of the novel are rather weak, so I wonder if perhaps non-fictional genres would better suit the author’s talents and knowledge—creative non-fiction, for instance. The overreliance on dialogue—stilted at that—when characters are interacting with each other results in flat characterisation. Too much exposition of inter-personal feeling is left to dialogue. Further (and I give nothing away by writing this), the climactic episode of the 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean Tsunami, after which the novel is named, is very poorly written. The drama and devastation is not captured at all. I had to rely upon my memory of watching footage of events to picture what the author was attempting to portray, as the prose itself was not enough.

I did enjoy The Last Wave, though. It is a charming and interesting novel, and unless one is an anthropologist or a student of anthropology, one seldom has much opportunity to learn about the Andaman Islands, so I appreciate Sekhsaria’s foray into this genre.

Indian Jewish Literature in Himal Southasian

Jew Town, Cochin.  Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen
Jew Town, Cochin.
Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen

After a few weeks of politically-heavy articles at Himal, we have just published this piece on Indian Jewish literature, by Navras Jaat Afreedi.

I’ve copied the first paragraph below, and the rest can be read here.

“2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women’s writing among Indian Jews.”

 

Concern for the Destiny of the Country

I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)

TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.

Update: 3 Quarks Daily reposted my article last week, a lovely and unexpected stamp of approval 🙂

The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.

“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”

 

Review of Vipul Rikhi’s 2012 Nights in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

2012 Nights, by Vipul Rikhi. Delhi: Fingerprint, 2012. Provided with free review copy.
2012 Nights, by Vipul Rikhi. Delhi: Fingerprint, 2012. Provided with free review copy.

My review of Vipul Rikhi’s stories 2012 Nights has just been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Here’s an excerpt, and you can read the rest here.

“In 2012 Nights, Vipul Rikhi provides one possible answer to the question of what the classic One Thousand and One Nights would look like if it was told from a contemporary male perspective. In the original collection of tales, Scheherazade tells her husband, Schahriar, a story every night, but must leave each unfinished to prevent him from putting her to death, as he has done his previous wives after their first night of marriage. Rikhi employs many of the same structural and narrative techniques as the classic, such as the use of the framing story, embedded narratives, satire, parody and an unreliable narrator, but in other respects, his work does not resemble the folktale influences of its namesake.”

Forget Kathmandu, Majushree Thapa, 2013 (2005)

Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, by Manjushree Thapa. New Delhi: Aleph, 2013 (originally publihsed in 2005).
Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, by Manjushree Thapa. New Delhi: Aleph, 2013 (originally published in 2005). Purchased in Nepal.

The best, and first book that anyone should read, on Nepal. I wish I had read this as soon as I had arrived in Kathmandu, it would’ve helped me understand the politics and history much quicker. Manjushree Thapa is a brilliant writer, no less so in her non-fictional works than in her fiction. Forget Kathmandu begins with the infamous 2001 massacre of almost the entire Nepali royal family (including the king), and ends in the midst of the Maoist insurgency in Western Nepal in 2003. The essays in between are all attempts at explaining contemporary Nepal–both to explain it to others, and for Thapa herself to come to terms with the chaos and instability of her country. Much of this book is akin to her novel The Tutor of Historyin its elegant style as well as its vigorous, political content.

An admirable and unusual characteristic of Thapa’s writing (here and elsewhere) is her owning of her bourgeois urban privilege. When she travels, in 2003, into the heart of the Maoist insurgency, she admits her background that enables her to make the judgments she does, far removed from the realities of Nepal’s rural working class, yet she doesn’t apologise for it. There is a fine balance to be struck–between an over-compensatory liberal guilt, and an arrogant dismissal of the ‘masses’–and Thapa does it perfectly. She strongly disagrees with the Maoists, particularly their violent and disruptive tactics, yet concedes that if she were an uneducated young peasant woman, she, too, would have been drawn to the movement. Thapa’s bewilderment at everything that is happening in her country around her could come across as naive or self-indulgent in a lesser writer, but her anger, her deep knowledge of politics and the centuries-long inequities of Nepal turns what could be a book of catharsis into something so much more important.

Forget Kathmandu, though several years old now, is certainly not outdated. The events recounted here are important for Nepal’s history (and its present) and Thapa’s speculations as to what could happen to Nepal are still largely relevant today–things are far from decided, here. Yes, parliamentary democracy has been reinstated, and a fairly successful election was held this past November. But democracy here is young, and there is still no constitution (successive Constituent Assemblies have failed to produce anything) and here the country is, six years later, treading water. The subtitle of Forget Kathmandu is An Elegy for Democracy, and in the years since the book first appeared, that subtitle could very well have become A Eulogy for Democracy. This updated edition, published in 2013, includes updated paratexts, but in 2011 Thapa produced another book to follow the story. The symmetry is clear and jolting: the final essay in Forget Kathmandu is called ‘The Massacres to Come’, and this newer book The Lives we Have Lost. I started that immediately after finishing Forget Kathmandu, to complete the picture.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera, 2013

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera. Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2013. Purchased in India.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is a beautiful, if unnecessarily complex novel. Set during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, and told from the standpoints of a Tamil and a Sinhala girl (amongst others), it recounts the horrific recent history in haunting and beautiful language. The novel begins prior to the war, so when its full ferocity becomes evident it takes the reader as much by surprise as it does many of the young, relatively isolated and apolitical characters.

There were echoes here and there of Rushdie, something perhaps natural in contemporary South Asian literature, but that I find a little problematic. The man has his own stylised techniques and ways of formulating fantastical plot elements so that they appear natural (almost, if you can suspend disbelief for the course of an entire book). So when I encounter echoes of Rushdie in a realist narrative, I am jarred. Two of Munaweera’s protagonists are born at the same time, to women known to each other, forever connecting their fates in a way somewhat reminiscent of Midnight’s Children:

“Shiva and I are born on adjacent beds in a large white room while the nurses stroke the thighs of our writhing, crying mothers. We enter the world on waves of our mothers’ iron-flavored blood. First, I, secretive and shy. I did not cry, they say, until he too had arrived. Purple faced, I had to be slapped into breathing. And then immediately after me, Shiva, as if he had been waiting for me to test the terrain. But when he does arrive, our crying fills the room, makes our tired and torn mothers laugh. Our fathers come rushing to claim us.” (p. 60)

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but the connections between these characters’ fates and those of their country, of personal and national destiny, reminded me of Midnight’s Children in ways that the novel could have done without. Surely there are more inventive and plausible ways of aligning an individual’s life with the fate of their country.

The shortish novel (225 pages) was overly complicated in other ways as well. Multiple characters were used to tell the story, coming to a head in Chapter 12, which switched rapidly between narrators. I’ve called out this trait (that I do consider to be a flaw) in other, inferior works as well (such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed) but I think this practice of switching between narrators to tell multiple sides of a story is usually a sign of weak writing. It takes an expansive canvas or superior literary skill to pull off effectively. It is understandable that an author would want to approach a deeply emotive and problematic topic such as the Sri Lankan civil war from multiple perspectives–so as not to be seen to be siding with one faction over another, to demonstrate that in war there are no winners among civilians, the explore the many ways that violence alters the lives of ordinary people. But switching between narrators frequently but also fairly haphazardly can also come across as a sign of incomplete character development. Perhaps it takes more skill to flesh out a single character with real-life human nuances than furnish a host of characters with the spectrum.

But, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a good book, reflective of an exciting young talent from Sri Lanka, and I think these critiques arise from the fact that it is a debut. The civil war must be an obvious, though difficult, topic for Sri Lankan authors to address, so it will be exciting to see what Munaweera does next.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors was nominated for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Year of Reading Women

the-year-of-reading-women-012
(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!